Originally published in Upwrite Magazine
“Are you lonely in Costa Rica?”
The question threw me off guard. I’d been chatting with my new Italian friend about our families, our jobs, our previous travels. It took me a minute to realize he didn’t mean the question as a creepy pickup line. With his limited English, it was his way of asking, “Are you traveling alone or with friends?”
After a brief mental scramble, during which I calculated the probability that I’d just spent half an hour in partially pantomimed small talk with a stalker, I decided to trust that he had no ill intentions. After all, we were the only two people on our tour who weren’t paired off, so it was a fair question.
I had come to Costa Rica to visit a friend in another city, I told him, but yes, I was traveling alone on this leg of the trip.
I certainly wasn’t lonely. I’d waved goodbye to my friend at the bus station that morning with a sense of excitement at the prospect of doing some exploring on my own. Watching the trees whisk by the bus window, I’d felt the same thrill of adventure that I felt every time I traveled alone.
I was ten years old the first time I flew on a plane by myself. My mom walked me to my gate and handed me off to a flight attendant, who kept an eye on me on the two-hour flight to visit a childhood friend in Pennsylvania. It was a welcome taste of independence, and one I’ve repeated many times since then (minus the watchful flight attendant). At first, the trips were small and usually involved meeting a friend at the baggage claim or bus stop. But as in the last few years, I’ve gotten bolder — navigating connecting flights in foreign airports, spending days exploring cities where I didn’t know anyone.
In all honesty, my love for traveling alone is partly rooted in selfishness. I enjoy wandering cities on my own, in complete control of my itinerary. I can decide what I actually care about doing and seeing without having to do the dance of “Well, what do you want to do?” I can grab lunch on the go, chase down every beautiful view in the city and go to bed early. Or I can ditch my plans and sit in a coffee shop all morning.
But I’d like to think there are some bigger benefits to be gained from solo travel. In the last few years, as constant connection has become the norm, I’ve realized that being alone in public has a way of making me feel insecure. Reading in a park or taking a walk is one thing, but if I end up solo at the sort of event that is typically a social activity — eating at a restaurant, attending a concert, hanging out at a bar — I’ve learned to distract myself to mask the discomfort of being on my own. I fear being seen and judged or pitied. But I also fear being invisible. So I text friends. I tweet my random thoughts. I scroll through Instagram and compare my experience to what everyone else is doing.
For me, traveling alone is an exercise in learning to face those insecurities. At home, I rarely eat out or attend events alone, but when I travel by myself, I have to learn not to lean on someone else to validate my existence in public. I’ll admit, it takes practice not to feel self-conscious, not to retreat into the comfortable distraction of my phone. But there’s so much to experience when I decide to stop worrying whether people think I’m weird for being alone.
That’s what it really comes down to: There is so much to experience, and as much as I love sharing experiences with family or close friends, I got tired of waiting around for someone to be willing and available to travel with me. I realized that I don’t need anyone’s permission to go exploring. I don’t have to share an experience with someone else in order to enjoy it.
Traveling solo has taught me the value of staying present, even — and especially — when there is no one to share the moment with. It’s taught me to trust my instincts and feel confident in my decisions. It’s pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me that the world isn’t as terrifying of a place as many people make it out to be.
And in a lot of ways, traveling alone has made me appreciate other people even more. My decisions to travel alone have often come from a headstrong sense of independence, but travel has a way of showing me that I need other people. When I’m on my own, I’m less likely to overlook those people who are serving my food or driving my Uber. I’m more likely to ask people for directions and food suggestions, or ask them about their story. I appreciate the new connections I make, as well as the connections I have to return to.
Traveling alone doesn’t often make me feel lonely, but when it does, it also helps me dig into the deeper reasons for that loneliness instead of running away from it — or running away from myself. Back at home, I sometimes fall into the trap of keeping myself busy so I don’t have to be alone with my thoughts. But that’s harder to do when I’m away from my friends, my family, and my familiar routines. I have plenty of time to examine what drives me and what’s really important to me, plenty of time to reflect on my big questions and doubts.
That same evening I met the questioning Italian in Costa Rica, I explored the small, touristy town with that new friend and a band of solo travelers collectively hailing from Mexico, Israel, the Czech Republic and, oddly enough, a town an hour’s drive from my own home. Toward the end of the night, we lay in hammocks outside one of the traveler’s hostels, sharing Costa Rican snacks and swapping stories of our travels and our lives.
It was an experience I would never have had if I hadn’t been on my own.
They were all headed to another city the next morning, they told me. Would I like to come along?
I smiled and thanked them for the invitation, then politely declined before heading back to my hostel alone.